Last Updated:May 31, 2021

Yukinori Yanagi at Sumiya Kiho-an

A contemporary artist revamps a traditional Kyoto inn

Sumiya Kiho-an is a Japanese inn and hot spring resort with easy access from Kyoto. Over the years it has hosted celebrity guests such as John Lennon and Yoko Ono. For its recent renovations, it selected Yukinori Yanagi, a contemporary artist known for emphasizing the fluidity of borders and the ambiguity of national identity in series such as “Ant Farm” and “Wandering Position.” Along with traditional craftsmen, Yanagi has redesigned the inn’s lobby and created a gallery space. He and his team Yanagi + Art Base, in cooperation with designer Kentaro Yagi of Hiroshima University, became involved with the inn when its owners purchased Yanagi’s work. Yanagi has created new pieces reconsidering iconic works of Japanese and American art for the distinctive space.

Yukinori Yanagi with his 'Study for Japanese Art – Hokusai' at the entrance of Sumiya Kiho-an. The black wall by plaster artisan Akira Kusumi is inspired by the sea.
Yukinori Yanagi with his 'Study for Japanese Art – Hokusai' at the entrance of Sumiya Kiho-an. The black wall by plaster artisan Akira Kusumi is inspired by the sea.

Close up of 'Study for Japanese Art – Hokusai' showing sand tunnels made by ants in a recreation of Hokusai's classic print 'The Great Wave Off Kanagawa'
Close up of 'Study for Japanese Art – Hokusai' showing sand tunnels made by ants in a recreation of Hokusai's classic print 'The Great Wave Off Kanagawa'
Video of ants moving through Yanagi's work
Video of ants moving through Yanagi's work

Behind the cafe are Yanagi's reinterpretations of Andy Warhol's 'Flowers' series, also using colored sand and ants.
Behind the cafe are Yanagi's reinterpretations of Andy Warhol's 'Flowers' series, also using colored sand and ants.

Yukinori Yanagi, 'Study for American Art – Flowers'
Yukinori Yanagi, 'Study for American Art – Flowers'
Yanagi wanted to literally and figuratively deconstruct a famous work of American art, as he did with the Japanese masterpiece.
Yanagi wanted to literally and figuratively deconstruct a famous work of American art, as he did with the Japanese masterpiece.

Yanagi envisioned the new lobby and gallery unit, called 'Hakutai,' as a set of interconnected cubes. Washi artist Wataru Hatano created the paper for Yanagi's drawing.
Yanagi envisioned the new lobby and gallery unit, called 'Hakutai,' as a set of interconnected cubes. Washi artist Wataru Hatano created the paper for Yanagi's drawing.

Yanagi's 'Wandering Position -Formica japonica #1-' is displayed on the back wall of the lobby. For the works in this series, Yanagi traces the paths of ants in red chalk. Themes of wandering and travel resonate with the concept of the inn.
Yanagi's 'Wandering Position -Formica japonica #1-' is displayed on the back wall of the lobby. For the works in this series, Yanagi traces the paths of ants in red chalk. Themes of wandering and travel resonate with the concept of the inn.

Cellist Mari Endo and violinist Tamaki Kawakubo performed in front of 'Wandering Position -Formica japonica #1-' at the opening ceremony for the new lobby.
Cellist Mari Endo and violinist Tamaki Kawakubo performed in front of 'Wandering Position -Formica japonica #1-' at the opening ceremony for the new lobby.
Ceramicist Naoto Ishii contributed works such as this earthenware vase fired at his kiln at Kyotamba, Kyoto.
Ceramicist Naoto Ishii contributed works such as this earthenware vase fired at his kiln at Kyotamba, Kyoto.

The hallway leading from guest section of the inn into the lobby. A nook in the wall displays artwork.
The hallway leading from guest section of the inn into the lobby. A nook in the wall displays artwork.
Another ceramic work by Naoto Ishii
Another ceramic work by Naoto Ishii

Hakutai Gallery. Meaning 'eternity,' the name references a classical poem about life being an eternal journey.
Hakutai Gallery. Meaning 'eternity,' the name references a classical poem about life being an eternal journey.

A room at Sumiya Kiho-an. The inn is in the traditional Japanese style with tatami, sliding shoji doors, and a futon.
A room at Sumiya Kiho-an. The inn is in the traditional Japanese style with tatami, sliding shoji doors, and a futon.

Some rooms have private hot spring baths en suite. There are also larger onsen baths for all guests to enjoy.
Some rooms have private hot spring baths en suite. There are also larger onsen baths for all guests to enjoy.

Sumiya Kiho-an's restaurant offers a variety of fresh seasonal dishes and Kyoto-style cuisine, such as this grilled and salted ayu sweetfish.
Sumiya Kiho-an's restaurant offers a variety of fresh seasonal dishes and Kyoto-style cuisine, such as this grilled and salted ayu sweetfish.

The front garden at Sumiya Kiho-an in spring
The front garden at Sumiya Kiho-an in spring

Sumiya Kiho-an’s choice of cutting-edge artist Yukinori Yanagi, whose accomplishments include winning the Aperto Award at the Venice Biennale, converting an Okayama copper refinery into an art museum, and being selected for numerous museum collections, speaks to the inn’s goal of combining the modern with the traditional. The new works in Yanagi’s ‘Ant Farm’ series displayed here echo similar pieces of his in which ants burrow through world flags recreated in colored sand. With the coronavirus restricting travel and nationalist tensions on the rise, Yanagi’s work is a welcome reminder of our interconnection. In the fall there are further plans for guest room renovations, also helmed by Yanagi, so be sure to keep Sumiya Kiho-an in mind for future travels, even if you cannot visit now. The inn accepts both overnight and day trip reservations with meals and hot spring access.

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Jennifer Pastore

Jennifer Pastore

Jennifer Pastore is a writer, editor, and translator for Tokyo Art Beat. Her thoughts on the Japanese art scene can also be found at artscape Japan and in other publications.

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